Betty Ford died yesterday at age 93. I’m so glad it wasn’t the breast cancer that killed her. As a young(ish) cancer-chick myself, it’s depressing as all get-out, not to mention terrifying, to learn of other women’s death from the disease we share. When this damned BC menace claimed Elizabeth Edwards, I was saddened and more than a little sick to my stomach at the stark realization that this disease does kill, young or old, healthy or not. The fact that this dreaded disease claims some 40,000 women a year brings into sharp focus the loss of maternal love that comes with each BC casualty. Knowing how much I miss my own sweet mama, the idea of the motherless Edwards children weighed heavily on my heart for weeks after her death.
I was a kid when Betty Ford was in the White House, so I don’t have much of a reference point for her. I do recall a grade-school chant of “Ford, Ford, he’s our man; Carter belongs in the garbage can” during Ford’s bid for re-election, but like the other kids on the playground, I chanted that with virtually no knowledge of politics. I’m sure I knew that Richard Nixon had been president, but was much too busy riding my bike and playing cul-de-sac games to realize that Gerald Ford became president in August of 1974, taking the place of a disgraced Richard Nixon. Now I know that Ford had been vice president less than a year before being “called up”; he’d been chosen to succeed Spiro Agnew, who also left office in disgrace amidst accusations of tax evasion.
I’m sure I didn’t realize that Betty Ford went from a “regular person” to wife of a Congress member fast. Really fast. She married Gerald Ford a month before he was elected to Congress; in fact, he was late to their wedding because he was campaigning up to the last minute. When JFK was president, the Fords became friends with the Kennedys and attended several parties at the White House. When JFK was assassinated in 1963, Betty Ford lingered at the burial and was the last woman at the gravesite. Two years later, Ford was elected minority leader of the House, and was away from home a lot. That’s when her heavy drinking began, and it continued for more than a decade before her family intervened. After she conquered her addiction to alcohol and pain pills, she founded the Betty Ford Center, which opened in October 1982. Since then, some 27,000 people have been treated there, including celebs like Elizabeth Taylor, Mary Tyler Moore, and Mickey Mantle.
I didn’t think much about Betty Ford once I was an adult, either, since her time in the spotlight had more or less passed and she endeavored to live as a private citizen. She apparently shunned the spotlight yet was returned to it in December 2006 when the country entered a 6-day mourning period upon the death of President Ford.
Even then, I didn’t think much about her, until I was diagnosed with breast cancer.
See, Betty Ford was a member of the pink ribbon sisterhood, and she blazed a trail that has significantly benefited subsequent generations of women. Women like me.
I was 6 years old when Mrs Ford was diagnosed with breast cancer in her right breast. She learned the bad news on September 26, 1974, according to the First Ladies’ biographies website. Two days later, she underwent a radical mastectomy. She’d been the First Lady for a matter of weeks when she was diagnosed. She faced the situation with the candor for which she’d become known: she announced her diagnosis and surgery publicly and even invited the media into her hospital room and posed for photos. Here she is, reading a get-well card signed by Congress.
I have no idea if she realized how much of a trailblazer she was. It’s probably just how she was, and to her, being outspoken and honest about her “cancer journey” is “just what you do.” I can relate to that. I hope Mrs Ford realized the impact she had on breast cancer awareness, which is safe to say was nonexistent in the early 1970s. I think she must have, based on this quote: “Before I was ever out of the hospital, there were, on television, women checking in to have mammograms,” Ford said at the Gerald Ford Museum in May 2001. “It was kind of like, if the first lady can have breast cancer, anyone can have breast cancer.”
Mrs Ford underwent two years of chemo, and in the fall of 1976 her doctors declared her cancer-free. Someone once asked her if she felt sorry for herself after losing her breasts. I absolutely adore her reply:
“No! Oh no — heavens no. I’ve heard women say they would rather lose their right arm, and I can’t even imagine it. It’s so stupid.”
She believed that women facing breast cancer should “go as quickly as possible and [get the surgery] done. Once it’s done, put it behind you and go on with your life.”
It’s safe to say that Mrs Ford paved the way for countless women–including yours truly– who were diagnosed after her. She removed the stigma from cancer, and breast cancer in particular. Before she piped up, there was no breast cancer awareness, no public discussion, and certainly no pink-ribbon culture. Barbara Brenner, former executive director at Breast Cancer Action said that Ford “showed people that you can live with cancer, that it’s not a death sentence.” The Komen organization has similar respect for Mrs Ford. Their official statement says “Betty Ford opened the door for millions of women when she candidly acknowledged her breast cancer diagnosis at a time when we didn’t talk about this disease and untold numbers of women suffered in silence. She showed the world that breast cancer could be faced with courage, with humor and with great dignity.”
It’s also safe to say that Mrs Ford would likely be quite pleased with the advances that have been made in breast cancer treatment. Ironically, in the same year she was diagnosed, Tamoxifen was showing itself to be a wonder drug in decreasing breast cancer recurrence. Now it’s become a household name in the BC community, and it’s a daily part of my life.
I think I would have really liked Betty Ford. Not just because we’re both members of the dreaded pink ribbon club, either. Because she was smart, sassy, outspoken, and real. She was a survivor, in every sense of the word. She was beloved as First Lady, and used her role as a platform to educate the American public on controversial subjects such as abortion, marijuana use, and the Equal Rights Amendment. She made it clear that she and President Ford would share a bed in the White House (something not previously publicized, apparently), and when someone asked her about sleeping with the president, she said “I do–every chance I get.”
She was perhaps unconventional as First Lady, and I like how she shook things up a bit. I love this story about her, told by White House photographer David Kennerly. On her last day as First Lady, Betty Ford walked by the empty Cabinet Room and told Kennerly, “You know, I’ve always wanted to dance on the cabinet room table.” Kennerly said, “Well, nobody’s around.” Opportunity knocked, and the plucky First Lady took advantage.
Kennerly says she took off her shoes, hopped up there, and struck a pose. “She’s a tiny woman, really, in very good shape. Very graceful, as a former dancer with the Martha Graham company. She got up there.”
Speculating on why Mrs Ford would be compelled to dance on the table, formally set with notepads and ashtrays (yes, ashtrays!), Kennerly realized that very few women have had a seat at that table. “I bet you could count them on one hand at that point, and knowing her support for the Equal Rights Amendment”—she endorsed it—”she was tap-dancing in the middle of this male bastion. She was storming the walls of the gray suits and gray-haired eminences.”
“It was a wonderful and whimsical ending,” Betty Ford wrote, “to that magical time I spent as first lady.”
R.I.P, Betty Ford.
I just read, yesterday morning, that Elizabeth Edwards announced that “future cancer treatment would be unproductive” and that she had only months or maybe even weeks to live. And then she died. That same day.
I’m so sad. For her. For her kids. She’s suffered a lot already (let’s not even mention her jackass husband and all the suffering he brought into her life). She wrecked up my childish yet dogged desire to believe in a limited amount of suffering in one person’s life. I wanted to believe that losing my mom would be the worst thing to ever happen to me. So far it is, but when I look at Elizabeth’s Edwards’s life, and the fact that her 16-year-old son was killed in a car crash, I am smacked in the face with the reality that there is no limit to the amount of suffering in one’s life.
Obviously, I don’t know her, but she seemed to have a lot of class, regardless of politics or religion or her jackass of a husband. She lived most of her life in relative obscurity, practicing law and raising the family she vowed to create after Wade was killed. My heart breaks for her remaining children. Cate, who is in her late twenties, will likely become the mama to Emma Claire, 12, and Jack, 10. All three of them will have to navigate the treacherous terrain that is life without their mama. No matter how old you are, you never stop wanting your mom. Former press secretary Jennifer Palmieri said about Elizabeth, “Any room she walked into, she made it a home.”
That’s a real talent.
Elizabeth faced her breast cancer publicly and bravely. She was diagnosed in November 2004 and made headlines when she urged her jackass of a husband to continue his presidential campaign despite her Stage IV cancer.
Stage IV. That’s as bad as it gets, and the fact that she wanted him to continue his dream despite the tumor in her breast and the spots on her rib, lung & hip, is the epitome of selflessness.
She was brave, and she was a fantastic example to cancer patients everywhere that life goes on. Despite diagnosis, life goes on. Despite treatment, life goes on. Despite surgery, life goes on. Despite complications, life goes on. Despite John Edwards making a fool of himself and a mockery of all that his family held dear, life goes on.
And life did go on for Elizabeth. She worked hard: raising her family, writing 2 books, advising President Obama on health care reform, and doing her best to make a difference–for her family, for countless cancer patients, and for herself. Although she was all these things: attorney, author, advisor, advocate, she said often and proudly that her job was to be a mom.
She knew her cancer wasn’t curable, but treatable. She did all the right things and tried to stay strong, despite life on the campaign trail.
Her final statement reflects upon the kind of person she was and the sheer strength she embodied:
“You all know that I have been sustained throughout my life by three saving graces – my family, my friends, and a faith in the power of resilience and hope. These graces have carried me through difficult times and they have brought more joy to the good times than I ever could have imagined. The days of our lives, for all of us, are numbered. We know that. And, yes, there are certainly times when we aren’t able to muster as much strength and patience as we would like. It’s called being human. But I have found that in the simple act of living with hope, and in the daily effort to have a positive impact in the world, the days I do have are made all the more meaningful and precious. And for that I am grateful. It isn’t possible to put into words the love and gratitude I feel to everyone who has and continues to support and inspire me every day. To you I simply say: you know.”
In a 2007 interview she spoke realistically about her cancer, saying, “When I was first diagnosed, I was going to beat this. I was going to be the champion of cancer. And I don’t have that feeling now. The cancer will eventually kill me. It’s going to win this fight.”
Her cancer did win, but she is a champion nonetheless. Rest in peace, Elizabeth.